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27 August 2020

A Quechua Healer Long Remembered by his Powers

27 August 2020 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo

Captured by the mysticism of a Quechua healer who disappeared into the Andes over 20 years ago, Florence Goupil travels deep into the Peruvian mountains to recreate the path he took and connect spiritually with the story.

© Florence Goupil, from the series Don Benito Q'oriwaman

It is believed that a man known as Don Benito Q'oriwaman was a Quechua healer who, in the 1980s, disappeared in a lake high into the Andes. In Quechua cosmology, healers are guardians who maintain a dialogue between nature and humans. Throughout Q'oriwaman’s life he had maintained this connection through rituals and songs of gratitude. But one day he stopped everything, leaving the forests, rivers, and mountains in full solitude.

After Florence Goupil spent seven years in France, she decided to return to her Peruvian homeland, which immediately re-enchanted her with its heritage, but above all, its narrative. In the wonders of nature and mythology, Florence learned about the Don Benito Q'oriwaman legend. Intrigued by the uniqueness and power of the story, she decided to photographically recreate it.

How did you learn about the story of Don Benito Q'oriwaman and why did you decide to produce a body of work on this topic?

The story of Don Benito Q'oriwaman was told to me by my good friend Oswaldo Povea, a native from Cusco, Peru. At sunset, while descending the vast hills of Cusco, Oswaldo observed a hawk flying over us and told me about Don Benito Q'oriwaman, whose name means golden hawk.

He spoke of Don Benito as if he was a relative of his, with a solemn, yet affectionate tone, telling me the secret of his life and death. The story captivated me immediately. After having lived for the last seven years of my life in France, listening to this story was like a re-encounter with my childhood. At the time, I used to listen to my grandmother tell me stories of her hometown in the Andes. I understood again the importance of narrative and to continue to tell the deep stories of Peru, this time in photographs.

© Florence Goupil, from the series Don Benito Q'oriwaman
© Florence Goupil, from the series Don Benito Q'oriwaman

The images you have created for your project are so hauntingly poetic - could you share what have been your references to develop this body of work and how these influences have impacted your visuals?

One time I heard the phrase ‘the poet is he who sees the poetry of the landscape’. The wonderful works by Tereza Zelenkova, Maya Goded with Land of Witches and David Jimenez with his project Aura, the visual intention of Claudia Andujar, Sarah Imloul and Yorgos Yatromanolakis of poetic and mystical character have been of great inspiration to me. But beyond feeling enchanted by the strength of these works, I am interested in the process, the encounter between the photographer and the image. I like to know how they observe reality and see.

Where have you been photographing the series? Who is the man who you have photographed?

I started this project in Peru, photographing my friend Oswaldo Povea, who told me this powerful story. We went far deep into the mountains where ancient and endemic trees still grow alongside black water lagoons. As if to recreate the path taken by Don Benito Q'oriwaman before he entered the water. More and more, I was carried away by the intensity of this story, and I began to observe the water. When I visited Patagonia, in the south of Chile, I was able to spend long hours by a water course over black volcanic rocks. It is there that I could perceive a face in the movement of the water.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the development of the project in any way?

Since the health crisis spread throughout the country, indigenous communities have closed their borders as a protection measure. So, I have not been able to return to the mountains of Cusco in search of the traces of Don Benito Q’oriwaman. Yet there is something pleasant in waiting, in making this project a slow and paused journey that can lead me to discover more about the mystery of death.

© Florence Goupil, from the series Don Benito Q'oriwaman
© Florence Goupil, from the series Don Benito Q'oriwaman

Looking at your other long-term projects I can see you have a clear interest in heritage and Andean mythology - could you elaborate on what draws you to work on such topics?

Many of the stories that follow us from ancient Peru, survive as urban myths, waiting to be finally rediscovered. One day I realised that the mysteries that my grandmother told me about, were actually secrets. She would whisper to me when we were alone in the kitchen or while listening to some huayno (Andean folk music). It was our special moment.

For some reason, I knew I should not repeat these stories with anyone. Because the native root or everything close to the indigenous, was strongly discriminated against in the society of Lima. To such a degree, that the Andean narratives became a secret. The language had the same fate. My grandmother could no longer speak Quechua.

I think that in Peru there has long been a lack of collective memory, a black hole where the importance of our roots and identity was lost. Remembering where we come from is very important to me, so that we know who we are. A long-term memory from long before the armed conflict. May it not just stop there.

Don Benito Q’oriwaman is a journey back to our roots. To return to that place where it was carefully guarded and where it awaits us. For this reason, I photographed the native corn and its Andean symbolism, the medicinal plants of the Amazon and its connection with the beings of the forest. Very often I am sure that this is where our humanity lies. I trust that with this powerful photographic medium, there will be a change in the way we see the Peruvian indigenous roots.

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Florence Goupil is a Peruvian photographer currently based in Lima. She began her art history studies in Paris and later graduated in Multimedia and Editorial Design in Rennes, France. In 2020, Florence was nominated for the Joop Swart Masterclass, became a National Geographic Explorer, and she was awarded with the 2020 Getty Images Reportage Grant. Follow her on Instagram.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of In Focus: Latin American Female Photographers, a monthly series curated by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo focusing on the works of female visual storytellers working and living in Latin America.

Written by

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo

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